Novak Djokovic Makes It Into the Exclusive Career Grand Slam Club with French Open Win

Djokovic had finished runner-up three times in Paris
Djokovic had finished runner-up three times in Paris

For Novak Djokovic, the French Open has always been seemingly, seductively within his formidable grasp.

As a freshly minted 19-year-old, he was a quarterfinalist here a decade ago and a finalist three times in the past four years. But ultimately, Roland Garros — generally, the most elusive of the Grand Slams — always played hard to get.

The karma finally changed for the No. 1-ranked Djokovic on his 12th visit to this charming venue. On another gray, desolate day, the Serb rallied vigorously to defeat No. 2 Andy Murray 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

No man ever lost more times here before winning his first title. Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Andres Gomez and Stan Wawrinka all broke through in their 11th attempt here. And now Djokovic finally joins them and cements his name in another, far more exclusive club, as well.

At 29, he is the second-oldest man, and the eighth overall, to complete the career Grand Slam, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Agassi, Federer and Rafael Nadal. Only Agassi, by a matter of 24 days, was older.

“This is something that is so rare in tennis,” Murray said in his on-court interview. “It hasn’t happened for an extremely long time, and it’s going to take a long time to happen again. Me personally, being on the other side, it sucks to lose the match. [But] I’m proud to be part of today.”

Don’t look now, but Djokovic has won six of eight Grand Slam titles. Federer actually won six of seven in a stretch from 2005 to ’07, but Nadal and Pete Sampras, the only other players who have more major titles than Djokovic, never managed six of eight.

Oh, and for the record: Djokovic is the holder of all four major trophies. He’s only the third man to win four consecutive majors, joining Laver and Budge.

While Murray was happy merely to be in the final, Djokovic has had his piercing hazel eyes on this one for some time.

“Obviously, it was a pleasure to play against you once more,” Djokovic said during the on-court ceremony, directing his message to Murray. “One had to lose, but I am sure we’ll be seeing you with the big trophy in the future.”

Djokovic had beaten Murray in 23 of their previous 33 meetings, but this history was leavened by their recent result in Rome, when Murray handled him in two well-contested sets.

On Sunday, Murray came out briskly, hitting the ball with more force than Djokovic, who lost his first two service games and couldn’t find the range on his forehand. After leveling the match at a set apiece, the turning point appeared in the form of a Murray forehand volley that should have dropped into the open court but, instead, found the net. Djokovic had the break and, with a 2-1 lead, broke Murray’s next service game.

Murray, who had spent nearly five more hours on the court in this tournament than Djokovic, began to wear down. Court coverage and Djokovic’s supple and signature shot-making prevailed in the end of this 3-hour, 3-minute match. Again and again, Djokovic ran down Murray’s drop shots and delicately carved his responses just out of reach.

When it was finally over, and with a teary Gustavo Kuerten looking on, Djokovic echoed Guga’s signature French Open celebration, carving a heart in the red clay with his racket and lying down in the middle of it.

As Djokovic sat in his changeover chair, you could see it all wash over him. He almost seemed to be in disbelief. His mother and father came on the court to congratulate him, and then he addressed the crowd in French.

“Very special,” an emotional Djokovic said, shaking his head.

After acknowledging Kuerten with a smile, he added to the crowd, “Merci, beaucoup.”

Previously, when Djokovic fell here to Nadal, in 2012 and 2014, and a year ago by a Swiss not named Federer, Djokovic was stoically gracious. After losing to Wawrinka, Djokovic said: “He just found the solutions on the court. This is sport. That’s what happens on this level. You have to accept the loss.”

Djokovic repeatedly insisted he was not “obsessed,” but it had become increasingly obvious that this characterization wasn’t far from the mark.

The sterling Coupe des Mousquetaires is far more important to Djokovic than the 2 million Euros in prize money and the 2,000 ATP World Tour rankings points that come with it. This was the biggest hole in an otherwise sparkling résumé and will go a long way toward completing Djokovic’s sense of himself as a professional tennis player.

Playing against Federer and Nadal over the years, Djokovic had long been the underdog, the player fans were rooting against. His almost childlike desire to be loved has come through in a number of his postmatch news conferences. With those two icons both gone from the draw after two matches, Djokovic finally got his wish. Repeatedly, the crowd chanted, “Nole! Nole! Nole!” and it had to feel good.

His career is now all but complete. All that’s left to do is the final accounting in a few years’ time.

Djokovic’s major title count stands at 12. How many more Grand Slam championships will he win? How soon before he catches Nadal and Sampras, who each have 14? And, is there a chance he could surpass Federer’s 17, this sport’s holiest of grails?

At the moment, it actually seems possible.

SOURCE: ESPN – Greg Garber